Machines threaten RMG workers' jobs

garment factory
A man uses a machine at a garment factory in Gazipur. The number of garment workers has gone down due to rapid automation of production. Photo: Amran Hossain

Rapid automation of production, closure of some noncompliant factories and the emergence of some other high-potential sectors have shrunk the total number of workers employed by the garment sector by 0.80 million over the last five years.

In 2013, the total number of garment workers in Bangladesh stood at 4.4 million, which fell to 3.6 million now, said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies.

"Automation is mainly responsible for the shedding of workers."

One machine can make at least 10 workers in a factory redundant, according to Ahmed.

Workers in sweater factories stand to lose their jobs as the owners are progressively moving towards full automation to save up production costs and reduce reliance on workers, he added.

Srinivas Reddy, the immediate past country director of the International Labour Organisation, in a recent interview with The Daily Star also agreed with the declining number of garment workers in Bangladesh.

The machine has replaced the unskilled and semi-skilled workers, but the skilled workers are still employed in the factories, he said.

Apart from automation, the closure of nearly 400 small and medium factories is also responsible for the reduction of garment workers.

The factories that could not pass the tough criteria of the Accord and Alliance, the two foreign inspection agencies, were shuttered and the employees lost jobs.

Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, echoed the same.

"Yes, it is true that the demand for workers has declined due to automation and closure of some factories," he said, while citing the remarkable shift towards automation in knitwear factories.

The relocation of factories from Dhaka to Gazipur, Savar, Ashulia and Maona following the Rana Plaza building collapse is also to blame for the decline in numbers.

"The workers did not join the new places or shifted to other sectors," Ahmed said.

Increasing attention to value-added garment items such as blazers, suits, lingerie and sportswear is another reason, according to industry insiders.  For high-end garment items, a certain level of satisfaction is needed that cannot be achieved by way of manual labour.

At present, value-added items account for 40 percent of the total apparel shipments, up from about 30 percent five years ago, according to industry insiders.

It is also true that the rise of other sectors like agro-processing, leather goods, IT and construction work for mega projects by the government also attracted workers away from the garment sector, Ahmed said.

"But at the same time, new factories have also come up and the efficiency of workers have also improved a lot," Moazzem said.

In the near future, if the e-commerce giants like Amazon and Alibaba employ internet-based marketing tactics, there is a possibility of merchandisers losing jobs as well, he said.

The government should come up with a policy as automation is taking place rapidly, the economist added.

Siddiqur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, acknowledged the shedding of workers in sweater factories for automation.

"But the most damage was done by the shutdown of nearly 600 small factories."


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